I got one [more], one [more] problem

By Jessica Ruth Kaliski in Cape Town, South Africa

A few days ago, I attended an event hosted by ATD (all together in dignity) Fourth World around violence of extreme poverty. The discussion itself was intriguing, but it also brought to mind a lot of things that I have been pondering, and worrying over.

ATD’s philosophy is to help fight extreme poverty by working together. To find the solution to this “illness,” we must work with those who have the illness. A top-down approach, with those in charge disconnected from community, will be unsustainable—it might temporarily help alleviate problems, but if it is not adopted, accepted, or maintained by the community it will prove useless. But more importantly, a top-down method is not empowering: it does not treat everyone as equals with equal dignity.

As I sat in on this discussion, I became determined to fix poverty, or at least give a hand to those in Cape Town. But how would I go about it in a way that empowers others, a way that does not picture myself as a “superior” being helping those who have less than myself?

Before the discussion, I had a conversation with one of my coworkers about volunteering opportunities. Recently, I have been trying to find a place to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Back at Amherst, I enjoyed the few times I helped out at a homeless shelter: it felt great to give individuals a hot meal, and it was also extremely eye-opening to hear the stories of these individuals (oftentimes, their transition into poverty was not through the usual stereotypical assumptions of drugs and alcohol).

My co-worker, however, was somewhat opposed to the soup kitchen idea, for it would create a situation of one who is below and receiving the food, and the other who is above and providing the food. There would be no equals. Rather than a food kitchen, she suggested a pot-lock at a church—a meal of sharing, rather than serving. Yet, how are those without food supposed to prepare food for this pot-luck?

This all still left me with the unanswered question of how I should “correctly” help others. Clearly giving money isn’t the solution, since that once again is a situation of a greater helping a lesser.

Individuals on the side of the road ask me at least five times a day if I can buy them a meal. I feel horrible saying no, but following this philosophy, if I say yes, I will not be treating them as equals (and by the end of the year, I’d be broke). So are we to ignore these people? Isn’t ignoring them creating an “air of ignorance”? Avoiding eye contact is definitely not showing equal respect.

Perhaps, we can donate money to NGOs that attempt to help others without creating power dynamics. For instance, ATD Fourth World has created People’s Universities, which are spaces for people from different social backgrounds to come together and meet, with the hope that sharing ideas can produce ideas. The organisation has also instituted Street Libraries, which are outside spaces where children can read or engage in art activities.

So it seems that ATD’s philosophy does not bar us from giving money, but rather discourages us from participating in activities that create an unequal power dynamic. These types of interactions create a two-way sharing of knowledge, which not only benefits both parties involved, but also might help us together solve problems to our world’s biggest dilemmas.

But, not all NGOs have this philosophy. So which NGOs should we donate to? Which are the “good” NGOs? And for that matter, how do we measure what is “good” and “not good”?[1]

While I’m on the topic of our world’s biggest dilemmas, I think there are a few other points I’d like to make.

I think we all know that there are a ton of problems in this world. I think I realised this internally when I went to India in January. I went to this country with the naive attempt to “solve” the sanitation crisis in India, or at least see it first-hand and better understand the problem.

However, when I got to India, I realised that sanitation was just one of the many problems plaguing this country. Infrastructure, poverty, illiteracy, stealing, and bribery, are just a few. And how in the world is India supposed to make a pledge at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference—such as investing in cleaner energy to lower greenhouse gas emissions—when a vast majority of citizens don’t have a steady income or a hot (or even cold) dinner every night?

This clearly overwhelmed me.

I am the type of person who likes to cross things off a checklist. The best part about making a checklist is crossing off the first thing on the list: 1. Make a checklist. There’s a sense of great achievement, and relief, as you slowly see your list diminish.

But the world’s do-list is enormous and most of the items on the list will never be achieved.

The eight Millennium Development Goals are essentially a checklist, to, for instance, eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, ensure environmental sustainability, and promote gender equality and empower women. The chances of achieving these goals, unfortunately, are low. We might indeed increase the percentage of children who receive primary education, but at least in my lifetime, never reach 100%.

So that’s just plain frustrating. There really is no end line in sight; small achievements, but never total accomplishment. I can’t imagine writing a senior thesis that just never ends. Yes, my thesis was way too long, but it definitely reached some sort of conclusion; it had a final page with a final period.

I think the MDGs are great for pushing our limits—you can’t achieve great things if you don’t set high, and often unreachable, targets—but we must also celebrate the small successes. Perhaps the world’s to-do list has eight big goals, each with many sub-goals that we can, and will, cross off (which, it indeed has, but this needs to be conveyed more clearly and the small accomplishments highlighted in headlines, not the pessimistic percentages and outlooks).

And now to my second point regarding our world’s issues.

I am very frustrated by the fact that a lot of conversations we have—both in casual conversations and in political and academic contexts—revolve around quantifying the issue and signifying the complexities of it, but not actually solving it.

I recently got hooked on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and was watching a clip on equal pay for men and women. He lampooned over how many academic institutions have determined how large the wage gap is, but no one has done anything to fix the issue.

We’re great at broadcasting the issue—and highlighting it in dramatic ways (for a laugh, watch SNL’s skip poking fun at CNN and its coverage of the Malaysia Airlines flight, found here)—but when it comes to actually making moves, there seems to be a lack of ambition, or if not ambition, a lack of publicised results (or positive results).

We’re great at showing the effects of climate change on polar bears or coral reefs, but not as good at showing what we are doing to fix it.

Continuing with knowledge garnered from John Oliver, his episode on tobacco showcases our preoccupation with searching for the problems in our world, but not doing much to prevent it. John Oliver talks about the media’s full on search for a two-year old boy who smokes 40 cigarettes a day. It seemed that everyone wanted to find him, meet him, and obviously get it documented on tape, but not necessarily help him. He became a celebrity for smoking cigarettes. Shouldn’t we be celebrating those who don’t smoke or who just reached their year-anniversary of being tobacco-free?

So, where does that leave us?

Where should we channel or energy and into what organisations? What is the best way to help others, and at the same time help ourselves? How should we value success? Are our goals too ambitious?

I still don’t have an answer. But, since I should practice what I preach, I really shouldn’t be talking about our problems, but rather should be doing something to answer these questions and hopefully do something to solve our world’s biggest dilemmas.

Footnote:

[1] Stay tuned: I plan on writing a future blog post on NGOs

Reprinted with the author’s permission from https://jrktoct.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/i-got-one-more-one-more-problem/

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